Purple Hibiscus

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Silence and Speech Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Colonialism and Nigerian Politics Theme Icon
Religion and Belief Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
Freedom vs. Tyranny Theme Icon
Silence and Speech Theme Icon
Violence Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Purple Hibiscus, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Silence and Speech Theme Icon

Silence and speech are important motifs throughout the novel, to the point that the contrast between the two becomes a recurring theme on both the personal and political level. The titles of two of the novel’s sections deal with this theme as well: “Speaking with our Spirits” and “A Different Silence.” Silence is associated with the fear of Papa that Mama, Kambili, and Jaja experience at all times. Kambili, especially, rarely speaks, because she is afraid to stutter and also never wants to anger her father. She and Jaja have a “language of the eyes,” speaking only with glances, as they are rarely left alone together and never mention Papa’s abuse out loud. Kambili’s silence then becomes more conspicuous in the presence of Aunty Ifeoma’s family—who are always laughing, singing, and speaking their mind—and Father Amadi, who breaks into song during his prayers. With Ifeoma and Father Amadi’s encouragement, however, Kambili starts to speak more, and even to sing. Jaja also grows more comfortable speaking, and he then turns his silence (which is no longer a fearful one) into a weapon against Papa by refusing to speak to him.

On the political level, Papa and Ade Coker most strongly represent the power of free speech, as their newspaper is the only one to speak out against the corrupt government. Aunty Ifeoma too criticizes the corruption she sees, unlike most of the other professors. Ade Coker is silenced by a package bomb, and Aunty Ifeoma is silenced by losing her job—yet they are both powerful examples of the importance of free speech. Ultimately Adichie always portrays the freedom of speech and music as a positive change over frightened silence and censorship.

Silence and Speech ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Silence and Speech appears in each chapter of Purple Hibiscus. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Silence and Speech Quotes in Purple Hibiscus

Below you will find the important quotes in Purple Hibiscus related to the theme of Silence and Speech.
Chapter 1 Quotes

Papa was staring pointedly at Jaja. “Jaja, have you not shared a drink with us, gbo? Have you no words in your mouth?” he asked, entirely in Igbo. A bad sign. He hardly spoke Igbo, and although Jaja and I spoke it with Mama at home, he did not like us to speak it in public. We had to sound civilized in public, he told us; we had to speak English. Papa’s sister, Aunty Ifeoma, said once that Papa was too much of a colonial product. She had said this about Papa in a mild, forgiving way, as if it were not Papa’s fault…
Mba, there are no words in my mouth,” Jaja replied.
“What?” There was a shadow clouding Papa’s eyes, a shadow that had been in Jaja’s eyes. Fear. It had left Jaja’s eyes and entered Papa’s.
“I have nothing to say,” Jaja said.

Related Characters: Papa (Eugene Achike) (speaker), Kambili Achike, Jaja (Chukwuka Achike)
Page Number: 13
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Papa--who has just made his family members try his company's new batch of cashew juice--notices that his son, Jaja, is conspicuously silent. Jaja seems to finally be standing up to his abusive, tyrannical father by refusing to parrot the usual praise that is expected of him.

We will see that Kambili and Jaja are known for their silence and obedience, but here Jaja starts to turn that silence into a weapon against Papa--by refusing to even speak to Papa, Jaja robs his father of some of his power.

The ideas of speech and silence here are also heavily influenced by Nigeria's colonial history. Papa's sister Ifeoma (whom we have yet to meet) is the only one who really tells it like it is about Papa, and calls him a "colonial product"--he has internalized the colonialist mindset that whiteness and Westernness always equals superiority. Thus Papa always speaks English, and wants his children to as well--he sees English as naturally superior to Igbo. Papa's slip into Igbo in this scene, then, is a sign of his sudden anger and desperation. He feels his son slipping away from him, and he simultaneously loses some of the tyrannical power of the English language over its Nigerian "subjects."


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I lay in bed after Mama left and let my mind rake through the past, through the years when Jaja and Mama and I spoke more with our spirits than with our lips. Until Nsukka. Nsukka started it all; Aunty Ifeoma’s little garden next to the verandah of her flat in Nsukka began to lift the silence. Jaja’s defiance seemed to me now like Aunty Ifeoma’s experimental purple hibiscus: rare, fragrant with the undertones of freedom, a different kind of freedom from the one the crowds waving green leaves chanted at Government Square after the coup. A freedom to be, to do.

Related Characters: Kambili Achike (speaker), Jaja (Chukwuka Achike), Mama (Beatrice Achike), Aunty Ifeoma
Related Symbols: The Purple Hibiscus
Page Number: 15-16
Explanation and Analysis:

As the first chapter draws to a close, we're introduced to the basic structure of the novel, as well as its dominant motif. The novel will be narrated in flashback, so that by the end, we'll fully understand why Papa broke Mama's figurines, and how their family came to be so divided. Furthermore, Adichie introduces us to the purple hibiscus that will come to stand for the characters' sense of freedom and creativity--a freedom that can't be destroyed by repressive parents or governors, try as they might.

The purple hibiscus, Kambili tells us, is free and "experimental"--a sure sign of its symbolic meaning. It's worth noting that although Kambili is seemingly under her father's thumb--living in his house, ex.--in her mind she's now free of his influence.  By the same token, the hibiscus seems to be powerless and domestic, when in reality it's secretly wild and free.

Chapter 5 Quotes

“They are always so quiet,” he said, turning to Papa. “So quiet.”
“They are not like those loud children people are raising these days, with no home training and no fear of God,” Papa said, and I was certain that it was pride that stretched Papa’s lips and tightened his eyes.
“Imagine what the Standard would be if we were all quiet.”
It was a joke. Ade Coker was laughing; so was his wife, Yewanda. But Papa did not laugh. Jaja and I turned and went back upstairs, silently.

Related Characters: Kambili Achike (speaker), Papa (Eugene Achike) (speaker), Ade Coker (speaker), Jaja (Chukwuka Achike), Yewande Coker
Page Number: 58
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Papa talks with his friend and business partner Ade Coker about child-rearing policies. Ade points out that Papa's children, including Kambili, are always very quiet--to the point where they never make a sound in public. Papa is clearly very proud of his children; he thinks that his violent parenting methods are justified, since by beating his children they'll be calm and well-behaved at all times (not like other children "these days". Ade points out the strange contradiction in Papa's life: he's a political advocate who uses journalism and his voice (the Standard) to criticize the existing political leadership in Nigeria. And yet Papa tolerates no such criticism or debate at home: in short, he's a personal tyrant who challenges political tyrants. Papa's behavior suggests that in his home life, he's more interested in power and control than in doing the right thing: he's willing to use journalism to fight for political freedom, but he refuses to see that beating and silencing his children isn't a good or virtuous thing to do.

Chapter 8 Quotes

I did not say anything else until lunch was over, but I listened to every word spoken, followed every cackle of laughter and line of banter. Mostly, my cousins did the talking and Aunty Ifeoma sat back and watched them, eating slowly. She looked like a football coach who had done a good job with her team and was satisfied to stand next to the eighteen-yard box and watch.

Related Characters: Kambili Achike (speaker), Aunty Ifeoma
Page Number: 120-121
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Kambili has gone to visit Aunty Ifeoma in her home. There, Kambili is shocked to find a very different kind of household than the one she is used to. Unlike Papa, Aunty Ifeoma encourages noise and conversation--indeed, she seems to enjoy sitting back and listening to her children argue and bicker, as if she's done a "good job" raising them and teaching them to debate about issues freely. Papa, of course, acts like a god in his own home--a tyrant with moral authority in all things--and prefers his wife and children to remain silent at all times, unless they're praying or agreeing with him.

Ifeoma's behavior in this passage indicates that she values open discourse and freedom of speech; not only in Nigerian society but in her home (versus her brother, who values political freedom, but not personal or religious freedom in his house). Furthermore, Kambili's surprise with Ifeoma reminds us how severe her own upbringing is: Papa doesn't let her speak her mind, let alone talk at the dinner table. It is only through their interactions with Ifeoma and her family that Kambili and Jaja will start to escape their father's influence.

“I hear he’s very involved in the editorial decisions. The Standard is the only paper that dares to tell the truth these days.”
“Yes,” Aunty Ifeoma said. “And he has a brilliant editor, Ade Coker, although I wonder how much longer before they lock him up for good. Even Eugene’s money will not buy everything.”
“I was reading somewhere that Amnesty World is giving your brother an award,” Father Amadi said. He was nodding slowly, admiringly, and I felt myself go warm all over, with pride, with a desire to be associated with Papa.

Related Characters: Kambili Achike (speaker), Aunty Ifeoma (speaker), Father Amadi (speaker), Papa (Eugene Achike), Ade Coker
Page Number: 136-137
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Kambili meets Father Amadi, a young, handsome priest. Amadi is impressed to hear that Kambili's father is Eugene Achike, since he knows Eugene to be an important philanthropist and advocate for political freedom: Eugene is regarded as something of a hero among the Nigerian people. Amadi tells Kambili about some of her father's most impressive achievements: as a writer and journalist, he's one of the only figures in the country who dares to criticize the Nigerian leadership, a decision that might eventually lead him into prison (along with his editor, Ade Coker).

The passage is notable because it reminds us of the paradoxes of Papa's behavior. He's an incredibly generous and noble-spirited man, who donates his time and money to fighting for other people. And yet he's also a severe, brutal dictator in his own house: he sincerely believes that children should be beaten and punished harshly when they do anything wrong. While Papa's behavior might be hard for readers to understand, Adichie uses his contradictions to make him a deeply human and fascinating character, both admirable and reprehensible at once.

Father Amadi led the first decade, and at the end, he started an Igbo praise song. While they sang, I opened my eyes and stared at the wall… I pressed my lips together, biting my lower lip, so my mouth would not join in the singing on its own, so my mouth would not betray me.

Related Characters: Kambili Achike (speaker), Father Amadi
Page Number: 138
Explanation and Analysis:

Kambili and Jaja have had their eyes opened during their brief time with Aunty Ifeoma and her family. Unlike Father Benedict, Ifeoma's priest Father Amadi is young, openminded, and, most importantly, is accepting of Nigerian and Igbo traditions as being equally valuable to Western Catholic doctrine. As we've already learned, Papa considers Igbo to be a language that is inferior to English, and is even "heathen" in its origins, but Father Amadi embraces Igbo as another language of praise for a universal, life-affirming God. This worldview is obviously more appealing than Papa's, but at this point Kambili is still very much under her father's influence. We see this fact especially in this scene, as she "silences" herself by biting her lip, instead of singing along with the rest of her family. According to Papa, Kambili would be doing the good Christian thing, but from an outside perspective this seems repressive and ridiculous--she is purposefully keeping herself from praising the very God she professes to love, as well as refusing to join in an expression of communal love, joy, and celebration.

Chapter 10 Quotes

Amaka and Papa-Nnukwu spoke sometimes, their voices low, twining together. They understood each other, using the sparest words. Watching them, I felt a longing for something I knew I would never have.

Related Characters: Kambili Achike (speaker), Papa-Nnukwu, Amaka
Page Number: 165
Explanation and Analysis:

Amaka, Kambili's cousin, and Papa-Nnukwu, Kambili's grandfather, are very close: they clearly love each other deeply, and over the years have developed a close personal language, to the point where they can speak only a few words and understand each other completely. Kambili is jealous of her cousin's close relationship with her grandfather; she wishes that Papa had allowed her to spend more time with Papa-Nnukwu growing up. In short, Kambili is seeing the consequences of his own father's close-mindedness: because Papa didn't get along with his father, Kambili never got to visit her grandfather growing up. She feels that she's missed out on an intimate family connection. By contrast, Kambili's rapport with her own father is almost nonexistent, consisting mostly of her own silence and Papa's lecturing, praying, or moralizing.

I laughed. It sounded strange, as if I were listening to the recorded laughter of a stranger being played back. I was not sure I had ever heard myself laugh.
“Why did you become a priest?” I blurted out, then wished I had not asked, that the bubbles in my throat had not let that through. Of course he had gotten the call, the same call that all the Reverend Sisters in school talked about when they asked us to always listen for the call when we prayed. Sometimes I imagined God calling me, his rumbling voice British-accented. He would not say my name right; like Father Benedict, he would place the emphasis on the second syllable rather than the first.

Related Characters: Kambili Achike (speaker), Father Amadi, Father Benedict
Page Number: 179-180
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Kambili begins to reluctantly shed some of her preconceptions about life and religion, while moving on to accept others. She's spending time with Father Amadi, who she seems to like a lot. Amadi gets Kambili to loosen up and stop being so silent, and before long, Kambili is laughing for the first time in the entire novel. Kambili asks Amadi why he became a priest, but then regrets this and tells us, the readers, that she knows the answer: God calls priests to the profession.

Kambili's idea of God's "calling" shows us how Eurocentric her worldview is because of Papa's upbringing. She's been taught to embrace a Christian God who listens to all Catholics, but who doesn't really fit with her own culture and country. Kambili can't even imagine God pronouncing her name correctly, or speaking in any way other than with a white British accent--a clear symbol for the discord between Kambili's religion and her culture.

Chapter 11 Quotes

Ade Coker was at breakfast with his family when a courier delivered a package to him. His daughter, in her primary school uniform, was sitting across the table from him. The baby was nearby, in a high chair. His wife was spooning Cerelac into the baby’s mouth. Ade Coker was blown up when he opened the package—a package everybody would have known was from the Head of State even if his wife Yewande had not said that Ade Coker looked at the envelope and said “It has the State House seal” before he opened it.

Related Characters: Kambili Achike (speaker), Ade Coker, Yewande Coker, The Head of State (“Big Oga”)
Page Number: 206
Explanation and Analysis:

Ade Coker, whose character was inspired by real-life Nigerian journalist Dele Giwa, is assassinated in his own home (just as Giwa was). Ade is a courageous editor and journalist who uses his influence to criticize the Nigerian leadership, like Papa himself. Here, the Nigerian Head of State (never named, but probably based on real-life dictator Ibrahim Babangida) sends Ade a package, marked with his official seal. Ade opens the package, not thinking that the head of state would try to murder him with so little subterfuge. But the package turns out to be a bomb, which ends Ade's life. The scene reminds us that the Head of State has almost unlimited power in his own country: he doesn't have to hide his assassination plots--instead, he can simply send a bomb in the mail, bearing his official seal. This assassination is also a major turning point in the plot, as it is a sign that Papa's political activities have real, deadly consequences, and it is also a symbol of "silencing" on a political level--Ade is literally killed for speaking out against tyranny.

Chapter 16 Quotes

“I should have taken care of Mama. Look how Obiora balances Aunty Ifeoma’s family on his head, and I am older that he is. I should have taken care of Mama.”
“God knows best,” I said. “God works in mysterious ways.” And I thought how Papa would be proud that I had said that, how he would approve of my saying that.
Jaja laughed. It sounded like a series of snorts strung together. “Of course God does. Look what He did to his faithful servant Job, even to His own son. But have you ever wondered why? Why did He have to murder his own son so we would be saved? Why didn’t He just go ahead and save us?”

Related Characters: Kambili Achike (speaker), Jaja (Chukwuka Achike) (speaker), Papa (Eugene Achike), Mama (Beatrice Achike), Obiora
Page Number: 289
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Kambili and Jaja are still recovering from their father's sudden death. Kambili notes that with Papa dead, they'll have to take care of their mother more closely--indeed, they both feel guilty for not doing so sooner. Jaja in particular feels guilty that he didn't protect his mother from Papa's beatings--he could have saved her many times before, and he contrasts his own submissiveness to his cousin Obiora's maturity. Kambili offers up a cliched truism--God works in mysterious ways--showing that she continues to subconsciously worship her father and imitate his style of religious fervor. (He's dead, of course, but she still immediately thinks of how he would be proud of her for saying this.)

Jaja, by contrast, has entirely rejected Catholicism along with his father's authority. Instead, Jaja now believes that Christianity is just a system of domination, used to justify people's pain and suffering: there's no reason, for instance, why God had to punish Job (or even Christ himself) so harshly. Perhaps God, just like Papa, is a bully, hurting people for no particular reason. In all, the passage shows the divide between Kambili and Jaja. Both have now been freed from Papa's literal control, but they react to this freedom in different ways.

“I started putting the poison in his tea before I came to Nsukka. Sisi got it for me; her uncle is a powerful witch doctor.”
For a long, silent moment I could think of nothing… Then I thought of taking sips of Papa’s tea, love sips, the scalding liquid that burned his love onto my tongue. “Why did you put it in his tea?” I asked Mama, rising. My voice was loud. I was almost screaming. “Why in his tea?”

Related Characters: Kambili Achike (speaker), Mama (Beatrice Achike) (speaker), Papa (Eugene Achike), Sisi
Page Number: 290
Explanation and Analysis:

At the end of the novel, it's revealed that Kambili's meek, submissive mother was the one who murdered Papa: she put poison in his tea, so that eventually he'd die. Kambili, who is by now deeply conflicted regarding her father--she still can't help loving and worshipping him, but she also recognizes how tyrannical and sadistic he was--is especially distraught by the fact that Papa was killed by his tea. In this moment of revelation, Adichie poignantly reminds us how Papa used to share his hot tea with his children, giving them "love sips"--and this same "love," which was both painful and alluring, is the method by which Papa himself was silently killed.

Mama's murder shows that tyranny and bullying have consequences. We can't entirely forgive Mama for her actions--any more than we can forgive Papa for his--and yet we can understand where she's coming from. After years of being beaten, she couldn't take it anymore. She never spoke out against Papa, but she did rebel against his tyranny in her own desperate way.